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Tahoe Map Information

Shaded relief map of Tahoe, Donner Pass, and northern Sierra Nevada Mountains

Lake Tahoe, California

    Modern culture
  • Natural resources
  • National parks and forests
  • Recreation

Native Americans

The western foothills of this portion of the Sierra Nevada were inhabited by the Nisenan Indians, members of the woodland Maidu people who lived off the natural resources of the region. Oak acorns formed a large part of their diet, which also included salmon, steelhead trout, and game animals. Their native way of life vanished when settlers and gold-seekers invaded the area, disrupting the fish spawning streams, cutting down the oaks, decimating the local game, and introducing diseases such as malaria and smallpox. Disparaged as "Diggers" for their method of harvesting roots and insects, that name acquired a new meaning when they were employed as laborers in the gold diggings. Although there is little evidence of aggression on the part of the Nisenan, they were persecuted and occasionally murdered by the immigrants. By 1870 the native population in the region had all but disappeared.

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Transcontinental Railroad

The Central Pacific Railroad originated in Sacramento and followed the general route of the emigrant trail through the Sierra Nevada. However, railroad routes were constrained to a maximum grade of about 4 percent (about 200 feet rise per mile) due to the limitations of rail traction and locomotive power. To obtain that grade on a route where the natural slope in places exceeds 100%, it was necessary to construct trestles across chasms and to build embankments, ledges, cuts, and tunnels through the solid granite of the mountains. Most of this heavy labor was performed by Chinese workers recruited into the country by the railroad to work at rates of $30 to $35 a month. In all, eleven tunnels were cut for the thirteen-mile western approach to Donner Summit, and two more tunnels brought the line from the summit to the eastern exit of the Sierra. Tunnel construction progressed at rates of about 2.5 feet per day during 1866 and 1867.

The other major obstacle in the mountains was snow. It was impossible to keep the line open in the face of winter storms that left 40-foot drifts over the tracks. The solution was to build snow sheds -- in effect, wooden tunnels to shield the track through the worst areas. Snow sheds protected 37 miles of track, leading to descriptions of the Central Pacific as the "railroad in a barn."

The line was America's last major engineering work constructed without benefit of machinery. It took five years to open the line from Sacramento to Reno, Nevada. A year later, in 1869, the rails across the continent met at Promontory, Utah. The human cost of that construction was high. The Central Pacific hired thousands of Chinese laborers -- 1200 of them lost their lives driving the line through the mountains.

[On the map, the modern rail line is approximately parallel to I-80.]

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General interest book recommendations

Additional online information about this region

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